Tuesday, July 04, 2006


The famously ambiguous atmosphere of Franz Kafka's writings seems to have been the result of a meticulous process. Malcolm Pasley noticed this when he edited The Trial, as Jeremy Adler draws attention to in a piece in the Times Literary Supplement (13/10/1995).

Pasley’s study of its manuscript brought major insights into the composition, such as the fact that Kafka wrote the conclusion immediately after the opening chapter, to provide a narrative framework, and so ensure closure. He then composed individual chapters like episodes, which he subsequently tore from his notebooks and kept in separate folders, working not unlike the building method in The Great Wall of China.
The method that Kafka described in that story is well worth dwelling on.
One could not, for example, let them lay one building block on top of another in an uninhabited region of the mountains, hundreds of miles from their homes, for months or even years at a time. The hopelessness of such a hard task, which could not be completed even in a long human lifetime, would have caused them distress and, more than anything else, made them worthless for work. For that reason they chose the system of building in sections. Five hundred metres could be completed in something like five years, by which time naturally the supervisors were as a rule too exhausted and had lost all faith in themselves, in the building, and in the world.
Anyone who has written a PhD thesis can, of course, already begin to empathize. And Kafka even provides an ingenius solution.
while they were still experiencing the elation of the celebrations for the joining up of a thousand metres of the wall, they were shipped far, far away. On their journey they saw here and there finished sections of the wall rising up; they passed through the quarters of the higher administrators, who gave them gifts as badges of honour, and they heard the rejoicing of new armies of workers streaming past them out of the depths of the land, saw forests being laid low, wood designated as scaffolding for the wall, witnessed mountains being broken up into rocks for the wall, and heard in the holy places the hymns of the pious praying for the construction to be finished. All this calmed their impatience.
This is not just an argument for "piecemeal construction", i.e., for accomplishing great deeds by the accumulated successes of small feats. It is also an argument for shifting back and forth between laborious details and a broader view of things.

I want to make two suggestions, one that applies to writing books and dissertations, the other to writing academic papers, both based on Kafka's procedures, whether real or imagined.

When writing a large work, you must occassionally read the whole thing all the way through with a pad of paper at your side on which to write down the things you need to do to improve it. You must resolve not to do those things, i.e., not to get immediately back to work. You have to give yourself a tour of the whole work, to look at it from a distance. That is, you must devote specific periods of time to an appreciation (and celebration) of the way the individual pieces of wall indicate a much larger, much greater whole.

When writing smaller texts (including chapters of larger texts), consider working at it from both ends. That is, write your introduction and then your conclusion. And then fill in what lies between them until it all forms a coherent whole. Even if you prefer to write sequentially, from start to finish, your editing can begin by sharpening the introduction and conclusion in order to frame the task of tightening the prose between them. This gives you a clear sense of your goal.

The most important reason for suggesting this way of working is that I often see texts that are trying to do too much in too limited a space, work that, it seems, would only ever be satisfying if it were possible to complete it all at once, and therefore remains forever an open question. It is important, however, to establish a framework that gives you cognitive and rhetorical closure. In your introduction, raise a problem that you have the materials on hand to solve. Make sure your conclusion echoes your introduction. Then see these two sections of your text as a kind of promisory note: a check written against the cash you provide in the body of the text. Your conclusion on its own should not convince anyone, but it should be clear from reading it alone what one would become convinced of if the rest of your argument holds.

All this can also make editing your work much more fruitful. A clear sense of what the text wants to achieve (beyond simply filling up pages with prose) is useful when making editorial decisions. Recall that Pasley's discovery helped him precisely in his attempt to piece together an unfinished work.

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